Kara Swisher

Recent Posts by Kara Swisher

Exclusive: Zynga’s Van Natta Moves to Strategic Adviser; Feld Off Board, Paul In

In a new filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission concerning its upcoming IPO, Zynga is expected to unveil two key management and board changes at the online gaming phenom:

Chief Business Officer Owen Van Natta — who came to the San Francisco-based start-up several years ago to help CEO Mark Pincus grow it and develop it — will step down from his job and become a strategic adviser focusing on major partnerships. He’ll still remain board member at Zynga, but will give up millions of pre-IPO shares by moving out of his operational role.

And director and venture investor Brad Feld will leave the the board, which VCs sometime do as companies move to a public offering and add members with more specific business experience.

In his place, longtime entrepreneur and investor Sunil Paul, who founded a company called FreeLoader with Pincus many moons ago, will join the board.

Zynga confirmed the changes to me in a statement by Pincus:

“Owen is a valuable business partner. He’s made great contributions to Zynga and continues to be an important part of our team.”

Sources said the changes related to Van Natta around are not part of a recent controversy around a Wall Street Journal story about clawing back of some share options grants of early Zynga employees who had become less involved in the company. While the company cannot actually take back already vested shares owned by those staffers, the article has put a lot of scrutiny on Zynga and raised questions about how to cope with the kind of hyper-growth some Internet firms experience.

That’s certainly been the kind of rocket ride Zynga has been on, as it has grown from a small social gaming company on Facebook to a high-profile public company.

Zynga is in the final stages of its IPO process, answering questions from the SEC that are typical. If all goes well, Zynga execs are expected to go on a road show after the Thanksgiving and go public by the end of the year at a market valuation of close to $20 billion.

That was different from when Van Natta officially got to Zynga in the spring of last year — after a rocky experience running the doomed Myspace. At the time, he told me at the time that planned to be focused on scaling the business and did not consider himself a long-term operating executive.

Since then, he has helped Pincus hire a series of experienced gaming execs, including a chief operating officer, a chief marketing officer and others.

Zynga was Van Natta’s third high-profile Web company in recent years. He was a top early exec for Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook until early 2008, and in 2009 he took over News Corp.’s (NWS) MySpace, a job that lasted less than a year.

Early in his career, Van Natta was also was a top strategy, marketing and deal exec for Amazon, which bought an early social networking start-up called PlanetAll that he worked at.

It will now be interesting to see what Van Natta does next, but it is unlikely he will take a permanent position. He is a longtime angel investor in Silicon Valley, including in hot start-ups such as Asana and still holds a significant stake in Facebook.

But, in moving out of his job at Zynga, he will be giving up many millions of shares of a rich trove he was given when he arrived at the company. That said, Van Natta already owns millions of accelerated vested shares and will get another large grant as a board member.

Translation: Don’t cry for Mr. Van Natta, Silicon Valley — he made $42 million last year from Zynga shares alone.


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